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Memes in Politics
Memes and their function within the political sphere
When Daniel was back at it again with the white vans, the meme spread like wildfire. It was shared and shared again across different media platforms, and the internet got creative. Variations of the meme became popular, and people began making their own memes referencing the original. There is even a rap song based on the short video, and the phrase, "Damn Daniel," became widely integrated into daily conversation. If a silly 30 second video can have this kind of an impact, imagine how influential viral meme culture can be when applied to something more relevant: politics.
Henry Jenkins describes convergence culture as a culture in which, "old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways." In a convergence culture, there is more information out there than any person can store in their head. Because of this, we talk with one another about the things that we have discovered (Jenkins). It opens up a dialogue, which perpetuates another type of information sharing. This kind of buzz is invaluable to the media industry, and for the marketing industry, convergence culture is a goldmine. Selling a brand is one way to utilize this buzz, and in terms of an election, the brand being sold is a presidential candidate.
PeersSocial media sites like Facebook and Twitter are a great way to stay involved in the lives of friends and family, and even ways to meet new people. These platforms are perfect for sharing that funny cat video you found or telling the world how much you hate calculus. It is also a great place to share news articles or discuss opinions on the happenings of the world, and bring this content right to your friends and family. Because of the upcoming 2016 election, politics have taken a front seat in the digital world. Lately, social media has been saturated with political news articles, opinions about candidates, and videos of debates. It has also become saturated with political memes. Many people create and share these memes for the sake of entertainment or humor, but the spread of these memes can actually influence public opinion and, ultimately, the outcome of an election (Edgerly, Thorson, Bighash, & Hannah).
Generally, a social media user does more than just post original content. These platforms allow us to interact with others through actions such as liking, commenting, sharing, reblogging, retweeting, favoriting, etc. These interactions are important for the spread of information; they allow people to take content that they see and extend it to an entirely new audience of their own circle of online acquaintances. A theory of social bonding suggests that these interactions are "a way of signaling respect, solidarity, common values, and shared social identity" between users (Edgerly, Thorson, Bighash, & Hannah. This is also true of political values and political leanings as forms of identity. The actions applied to political memes open the door to sharing information that otherwise might not be seen and allowing those people to pass on the information as well, and so on and so forth. It also opens the doors to discourse about political situations. Comment sections on political memes are often filled with debate and opinion-sharing on a world stage. Exposure to these memes and the conversations surrounding them can help to form or sway a person's views on candidates and policies.
JournalistsOf course, journalists play a huge role in politics. What they choose to report, the light in which they frame events, and the point of view they take when reporting directly shapes public perception and political standing. The influence held by journalists in this area is incredibly significant, so it stands to reason that the ability to shape how journalists report is incredibly significant, as well. Since social media is a stage on which candidates are publicly evaluated, journalists' judgments are very much affected by the climate of social media. How they choose to report on a debate or other such event can be drastically affected by opinions of the internet. The openness of social media also provides new ways for users to engage with journalists and big media on a common topic. Platforms like Twitter are used by journalists to assess public opinions and as a tool for their own reporting. In fact, the effects of social media on political reporting are so influential that candidates are instructed to use "network logic" in the ways that they present themselves. This means conducting themselves in ways that will make them most appealing to social media and presenting messages that are likely to spread across social networks (Edgerly, Thorson, Bighash, & Hannah).
Real TimeWhen technologies that allow for instant communication across the planet began being integrated into society, there was considerable anxiety and hesitation about the advancements. Some of these concerns involved the fear of being constantly connected and the new ways in which people would communicate with one another in a digital age (Baym). In a day and age where everyone and their mother has various forms of social media on their smartphone wherever they go, it is interesting to look back on these early anxieties. In a sense, they were right to be worried. These technologies did drastically transform interpersonal interaction. Today, communication is instantaneous regardless of location, and we have gained the ability to learn about the events of the world almost as soon as they occur. The integration of social media has changed the face of communication and, by extension, the ways we learn about, discuss, and interact with the world of politics. While official reporting on political events and formal commentary must wait until after the event takes place, social networks remove the delay from the equation. New memes about debates are created and spread even before the debate is finished. The reaction speed and sharing speed of the internet audience engages the public right as events are occurring. Instead of acting as an idle audience watching events play out, people are able to have front row seats to the action and serve as active participants in the process through their own contributions to social media and the influence that it may have on others.
MillenialsThe term "meme warriors" was coined by Lasn to describe a new generation of activists. Meme warriors utilize persuasion tactics in a social network as a main political strategy to bring about political change. As Lasn asserted,
Millenials are very politically active, and are generally considered to be tech-savvy and heavily submerged in digital culture. Combining political activism with the memes that the generation is so attached to has proven to be an aggressively efficient way to mould the digital social sphere. This method of spreading information is also engaging to the generation because of how political action can be blended with entertainment and social interaction.
"Potent memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures, which is why meme warfare has become the geopolitical battle of the information age" (Penney).
We Choose What is Newsworthy
One very powerful component of meme culture (and social networking in general) is that it gives the general public a platform to decide what is newsworthy. Networks all have their biases, and big media can not always be counted on to report on the things that ought to be reported (Penney). Things get swept under the rug or reported in a misleading light, and mainstream media is controlled by money and power structures that cannot always be trusted. Meme culture and the spread of information through social media give a voice to the public. It allows for people to be heard even if mainstream media is trying to silence them. This election provides an excellent example in the way that Bernie Sanders's campaign is being reported.
The Media Against BernieIn the 2016 election, it is not surprising that opponents of Bernie Sanders are fighting fiercely against him. What he probably wasn't counting on is how hard the mainstream media is trying to keep him quiet, as well. Throughout the election, almost all of the major news stations have been silent about much of his campaign. Other candidates receive a disproportionately large amount of coverage from these stations- even those candidates that have gained far less traction than Sanders. When something promising happens during his campaign, mainstream media remains silent. When they do run stories about Sanders, his prospects are downplayed to the point of deception, with reports claiming that he is doing much more poorly than he is doing in reality. It is his very vocal, very active mass of supporters that keeps him visible in the public eye (Regas).
Communities such as the "Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash" group on Facebook share memes about the election, engage in political discussion, and share news regarding the candidate. Since the people involved are just normal people, they can report on whatever they feel is relevant information, and do so with no ulterior motives. Since the mainstream media is refusing to keep the public educated about the actual events, the public has used memes and meme communities to take matters into its own hands. Sharing information in this way, "not only educates their fellow citizens but actively challenges the received wisdom of elite political commentators" (Penney). Having a voice and a platform for that voice to be heard restores a degree of power to common people whose knowledge and opinions might otherwise be dictated by big media and the agendas attached. This is why, as Lasn so eloquently phrased it, "Whoever has the memes has the power" (Penney).
Popular Memes in the 2016 Election
The 2016 election is ripe with hilarious memes about its candidates.
Whether it's ragging on Donald Trump's hair...
Or discussing his offensive nature...
Mocking Hillary Clinton for pandering to black voters...
Or for acting like she can relate to the struggles of poverty...
Whatever the situation, there's a meme for it. And those memes are making a difference.
Baym, Nancy K. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. Print.
Edgerly, Stephanie, Kjerstin Thorson, Leila Bighash, and Mark Hannah. "Posting About Politics: Media as Resources For Political Expression on Facebook." Journal of Information Technology & Politics (2016). Web. 3 May 2016.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.
Penney, J. "Motivations for Participating in 'viral Politics: A Qualitative Case Study of Twitter Users and the 2012 US Presidential Election."Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 22.1 (2014): 71-87. Web. 3 May 2016.
Regas, Rima. "Bernie Bias: The Mainstream Media Undermines Sanders at Every Turn." Alternet. 02 Sept. 2015. Web. 03 May 2016.